The challenge of SOVIET education
The Soviet system is now turning out engineers, scientists, teachers, craftsmen, economists and farm experts faster than Western education can. How is it done? Here’s an expert’s report on a little-understood aspect of the world crisis
Dr. GEORGE S. COUNTS
Within the past few months people in the Western world have been made aware by a single sanguinary political episode of two unique—and contradictory—products of Soviet education. One is the ordinary Russian soldier. The other is the extraordinary young Hungarian revolutionist. The episode was the revolt of the Hungarian people against their Communist leaders and the intervention of Russian divisions to put down the revolt in a country the Russians have come to regard as their own.
On the one hand young Russian soldiers, many in their teens, callously, ruthlessly, mercilessly and efficiently shot down in the streets women and children taking no part in the quarrel and killed in their classrooms children who could not possibly understand it.
On the other hand Hungarian youths, many mere boys of twelve and fourteen, ill-fitted and ill-equipped, fought back, killed and. apparently without counting cost, died in a hopeless struggle against hopeless odds.
The fighters on both sides are products of Soviet education—a system instituted and carried out in both countries by the Communist Party from an inflexible pattern laid down by the Party's highest rulers in the Soviet Union. Does this system explain the deeds of heroism and barbarism committed in the streets of Budapest, where youths - boldly slaughtered and were slaughtered, without apparent remorse or fear.
In the accompanying article. George S. Counts, professor emeritus of education at Columbia Uni-
versity. a widely respected teacher and writer, says it does. From half a lifetime of study of Soviet education, both inside and outside Russia, he examines the working of that system, its goals and its results, and its warning to the people of the West.
Whatever we may think about its moral and cultural features, or about the regimentation or exploitation of children, the Soviet education system is working, in pragmatic Russian terms. It is turning out craftsmen, engineers, scientists, teachers. economists, agricultural experts and leaders, and it is turning them out faster, and perhaps better, than Western education is doing. Especially in science, where Russia has come from the wooden plough to the latest atomic developments in a generation, the challenge of Soviet education is there for the world to sec.
The education of the younger generation must be a matter of deep concern to any movement that aspires to possess the future. The young are already formed, and to change them is difficult, if not impossible. A. V. Lunacharsky, the first Commissar of Education of the Russian Republic after the Revolution, liked to emphasize this point. Paraphrasing and expanding an old Russian proverb, he put the case in these words: “We can mold a child of 5-6 years into anything we wish: at the age of 8-9 we have to bend him; at the age of 16-17 we must break him; and thereafter, one may well
say, ‘only the grave can correct a hunchback.’ ”
But while the Bolsheviks may have shared these sentiments, they refused to march down the road suggested by Tkachev in one of his wilder moments and proceed to exterminate all persons of both sexes over twenty-five years of age. In fact, they directed enormous energies and resources to the education and the re-education of the older generation. This must be said, even though they did not hesitate to employ the most extreme measures of coercion against great numbers, even up to and including physical liquidation.
At the same time, steps were taken to weaken the hold of parents on children and youth. Deep in Marxian ideology is the doctrine that the family is a "bourgeois" institution, conservative and even reactionary in its influence. In the early years of Soviet power and down to the middle Thirties, marriage was merely a matter of registration at the matrimonial bureau. Ä marriage contract could be dissolved by either party through a simple declaration before the bureau, and the divorced person might be notified of the fact by postcard. This weakening of the marriage bond undoubtedly lent support to (he theory that children should be regarded as wards of the state and educated from the earliest years in nurseries, crèches and kindergartens. In the summer of 1929 the author approached a group of twelve-year-old children playing on a street in Moscow and put to them the question: “Should continued on page 28 children obey their parents?” Regarding the question as entirely proper, the children discussed it among themselves and arrived at the conclusion that they should obey if the parents were right, but certainly not if they were wrong. And in the Soviet Union it is the Party that decides what is right and what is wrong.
“The children decided they would obey parents if they were right but not if they were wrong“
It was the program adopted at the Eighth Congress of the Russian Communist Party in March 1919 that laid the foundation of the Soviet system of people’s education.
The role of education in the Bolshevik state is made entirely explicit. The Party proposes to “convert the school from a weapon of the class domination of the bourgeoisie into a weapon for the complete liquidation of the division of society into classes, into a weapon for the Communist rebirth of society.” During the “period of preparing the conditions essential to the complete realization of communism” the school devotes itself to the “education of a generation capable of finally establishing communism.”
The first task is the “introduction of free, compulsory general and polytechnical . . . education for all children of both sexes up to the age of seventeen.” By “polytechnical” education is meant the acquainting of the young “in both theory and practice with all of the chief branches of production.” The program also calls for the “creation of preschool institutions, nurseries, kindergartens, hearths, etc., for the purpose of improving social nurture and emancipating women.” The school is to be called the “unified labor school” and is to be marked by “instruction in the native tongue, co-education of the two sexes, and unconditioned secular control, that is, free from every kind of religious influence.” There is to be a “broad development of vocational and professional training linked with general polytechnical knowledge for persons over seventeen years of age.” The statement closes with a call for the “development of the widest propaganda of Communist ideas through the utilization of the apparatus and the resources of state power.”
This program announced in 1919 gives in broad outline the characteristic features of Soviet education which, with changing emphasis, method and content, have prevailed down to the present. Here may be found the general structure of the system of people’s schools, the vast scope of the total educational undertaking, and the conception of education as a political weapon. Here too are the patterns of monolithic control by the Party and the direction of all the agencies and processes of education toward the building of a “Communist society.”
Central in this program is the system of people’s schools which in general structure follows the traditional pattern of the Western world. At the base, as provided in the program of 1919, are the nursery school, the crèche, and the kindergarten which, however, have never served more than a small fraction of the children of appropriate age. Above these preschool institutions is the basic agency for providing the general education of the younger generation — the complete middle school. Beginning its career as a nine-year
school, it evolved into a ten-year school in the early Thirties, enrolling children from seven to seventeen years of age.
This institution is composed of three units — a four-year primary school, a three-year junior secondary school, and a three-year senior secondary school. In some rural communities the primary school probably still stands alone, though not according to official pronouncements. In some other communities the primary school and the junior secondary school are combined to form the incomplete middle school. In the larger communities the ten-year or complete middle school is the prevailing pattern. Above this institution are the higher schools with programs embracing from four to six years and
The boy who betrayed his father
One of the Soviet’s “Rules for Schoolchildren” instructs the pupil “to obey his parents.” Yet the case of Pavlik Morozov, who betrayed his father to the political police, is celebrated throughout the USSR. The exploits of this young “patriot” were immortalized in an epic poem of five thousand words by Stephan Shchipachev in 1951. The poem was published in a first edition of 100,000 copies by the State Publishing House of Children's Literature of the Ministry of Education. It now falls in the category of children’s literature along with “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Little Bo-Peep.”
with provision for graduate work leading to the doctorate of science.
Altogether there are almost nine hundred higher schools of all types, of which thirty-three are classified as universities and the remainder as technical or scientific institutes. The Soviet system includes no college of liberal arts and all the faculties in the higher schools, including the universities, prepare students for professional careers. Branching out from this central stem of the Soviet system of people’s schools at different levels is a great variety of schools for training Soviet youth for occupations of lower and middle qualifications.
Today the Soviet Union undoubtedly stands among the literate nations of the earth. In the mastery of language, literature, mathematics, science and history the record is equally worthy, with the reservation that knowledge has been made to conform with the doctrines of Marxism-Leninism. It seems quite probable that by the end of the Forties universal attendance through seven years was achieved in all but the most remote and backward regions and that by the end of the Sixth Five-Year Plan in 1960 attendance in the full ten-year middle school will be approached. In 1913 the number of students in institutions corresponding to the middle school was eight million. In 1953 it was thirty-five million.
The advance in science and technology and in the training of specialists has also been phenomenal. The fact has been established over and over that Soviet vocational, technical and higher schools are graduating each year two or three times as many specialists of several grades as corresponding institutions in the United States and Canada together. In general cultural standards the Russians still lag behind the countries of the West. As a
consequence, many Soviet youth have had to learn in schools skills that a child reared in a modern society acquires in the process of growing up amid machines.
But no society has ever committed itself so unreservedly in words to the mastery and development of mathematics and the natural sciences. Every youngster who completes the full middle school takes ten years of mathematics, six years of geography, six years of biology, five years of physics, four years of chemistry, and one year of astronomy. The emphasis continues in the higher schools in the
training of specialists, and research in all sciences is organized according to a comprehensive plan and is supported with unprecedented generosity. In addition, the scientist occupies a privileged position in Soviet society. That thought and research may be forced into the molds of political conformity and the sacred doctrines of dialectical materialism is true. Yet the achievements of Soviet scientists in nuclear physics leave little ground for those who contend that science can develop only in a free society.
In the 1920s many observers concluded that the Bolsheviks had adopted "progressive education.” The curriculum seemed to be made on the spot, examinations were scorned, and school marks abolished; homework was not expected, corporal punishment was forbidden by law, and the children seemed to be running things. The children not only operated a system of self-government but had committees on sanitation, on the curriculum, on methods of teaching. Often teachers feared their pupils, because of what they might say out side school.
The launching of the great new program for the industrialization of the country in the autumn of 1928, and the triumph of Stalin over his rivals by the early Thirties, ended this “experimental period" and brought down a rigid set of rules for education.
On Eeb. 12. 1933, the Central Committee of the Party pronounced the common scorn of textbooks “incorrect” and "intolerable." It then proceeded to instruct the Commissariat of Education to prepare "stable textbooks” in the “native language, mathematics, geography, physics, chemistry, biology, etc." A "stable textbook” is one “approved after a preliminary scrupulous examination by the Collegium of the Commissariat of Education." In such a textbook, Stalin said, “every word and every definition must be weighed.” And such a textbook must be prepared for “each subject" taught in the school.
The next step was the development of a rigorous system of marks, examination, promotion, and awards. The Central Committee issued a decree reviving the
What Soviet children study
The following table shows the seventeen subjects taken by all students in Soviet schools and the number of class hours a week spent on these subjects in grades I to 10 of the complete middle school. The column at right shows the number of hours a week spent by all grades on each subject. The complete ten-year
NUMBER OF CLASS HOURS PER WEEK BY GRADES It III IV V VI VII VIII IX
— — 2
Russian language and literature 13 13 13 9 9 8 6 S 4 4
Mathematics .................. 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6
History ...................... — — — 2 2 2 2 4 4 4
Constitution of USSR ......... — — — — — — — — — '
Psychology ................... — — — — — — —
Foreign language ............. — — — — 4 4 3
Physical culture .............. 2 2 2 2 2 2 2
Drawing ..................... 1 1 1 1 1 1 — — —
Drafting ..................... — — — — — — * 1 J *
Singing ....................... 1 1 1 1 1 t — — — —
Labor ........................ 1 1 1 1 2 2
Practical work in agricultural
economy, machine operation,
and electro-technique excursions — — — — —
Total Class Hours a Week
24 24 24 26 32 32 32 32 33 33
Wkly. Hrs. spent on
by a ll
middle-school education of a single child involves 9,962 hours of classroom instruction. This is about a thousand hours more than the average Canadian child gets in twelve years to senior matriculation. Time spent in homework and writing examinations is not included in either case.
prerevolutionary five-point marking scale: “1—very poor, 2—poor, 3—satisfactory, 4—good, and 5—excellent." All commissariats of education were instructed to establish "norms for the evaluation of the work of pupils” which would be “compulsory"’ for all the schools of the USSR.” Thereafter promotion from one grade to another was to carry a “certificate with an enumeration of marks" received in all subjects and in conduct. Pupils passing "the final and transfer examinations" were to be awarded “honor scrolls,” and on graduation from the secondary school, "diplomas with marks in all subjects.” Graduates from the secondary school receiving the “excellent in the basic subjects and a mark of not less than 'good' in other subjects” were to "have the right to enter higher schools without entrance examinations.” A decree of the Soviet of Ministers in 1944 called for special examinations at the end of the fourth, seventh and tenth grades.
This tremendous emphasis on marks greatly impressed this writer in the autumn and winter of 1936. In Moscow I noted that pictures of all pupils who received excellent marks were displayed on bulletin boards. I attended a meeting of the Young Pioneers for the election of officers. The children nominated took places on the rostrum. Each was required to give an account of himself and was questioned by other members of the organization. One of the first questions was, “What are your school marks'?” II he admitted to anything below "good" he was greeted with boos and catcalls.
Teachers, instead of being afraid of their pupils, were given new authority. Decrees for the Young Communist and Young Pioneer organizations for Soviet youth insisted that they must assist teachers in raising the level of instruction, raising the authority of the teacher and strengthening discipline.
The teaching plan for 1954-55 shows the stern new regimen: all children follow the same curriculum from the first grtide to the tenth, except for differentiation between the sexes in military-physical preparation. All ten-year schools teach the same subjects in the same grades, except the non-Russian schools of some provinces in which the Russian language is taught as an additional subject from the third to the tenth grade. The school year is long, ranging from 213 days in the first three grades to 230 in the tenth, and the school week embraces six days. The curriculum emphasizes the native language, mathematics and physical science. Moreover, according to the plan, the Soviet pupil is carried much farther in mathematics and science than the North American pupil. Mathematics includes trigonometry as well as astronomy. The study of physics and chemistry begins in the sixth and seventh grades respectively. Both science and mathematics are classified as “important subjects.” The study of English, German and French is taken very seriously; instruction begins in the fifth grade. Systematic physical education is provided in all grades from the first to the tenth for the purpose of “cultivating such qualities in the younger generation as bravery, persistence and will.”
Training Russian scientists starts in grade 6
In the administration of this curriculum little is left to chance. In addition to the “stable textbook,” there are “instructional programs” to fix both content and method. These programs are “compulsory state documents." Every teacher and every school director “bear responsibility for their fulfillment.” “Arbitrary changes,” even the “interchange of hour” between two subjects, “are inadmissible.”
The “Rules of Internal Order” for teachers prescribe punishment for “violation of labor discipline.” such as being late to work, leaving school before the closing hour, taking too much time for lunch. The punishment may take the form of: “(a) a remark, (b) a reprimand, (c) a strict reprimand.” For more serious violations, such as “willfully leaving the work of the school.” “shirking one's duty” and “theft of school property,” the guilty party is brought before the court.
In addition to subjects that would be recognized by any Canadian schoolboy, an important part of Soviet educa-
tion is political. Politics determines what subjects are taught and how they’re taught; it can also decide whether a student will become a scientist, engineer, teacher or farm worker.
According to the reasoning of Russian educators mathematics develops the method of “dialectrical thinking in pupils,” reflects in “concepts and formulas the dialectic of phenomena in the real world,” and “at each step confronts the pupil with the manifestation of such laws as the conversion of quantity into quality and the unity of opposites.” Physics “acquaints the pupils with the basic properties and laws, of matter and energy,” teaches “that the material world exists objectively, outside and independently of our consciousness,” provides a “materialistic explanation of such complex phenomena as radioactivity and atomic energy.” demonstrates that “matter and energy arc eternal and that one form of energy can be transformed into another,” and reveals the “operation of the general laws of dia lectics in manifold physical phenomena.” Consequently, “physics has tremendous significance in the formation of a dialectical-materialistic world outlook.”
History “aids pupils better to understand the priceless significance of the achievements of the socialist revolution” and gives them an appreciation of the “heroic struggle their fathers waged for their freedom.” It will also teach them “to guard carefully the victories of the revolution” and “cultivate in them the desire to devote all of their strength to continue the cause of building a Communist society in the Soviet Union.”
Every Soviet history textbook is revealing. But attention will be confined here to the third volume of The History of the USSR, edited by Professor A. M. Pankratova, covering the period from 1X94 to the date of publication, and used in the tenth grade, the last year of the complete middle school. This text is now in its fourteenth edition. The way in which the Party line influences history is revealed in the treatment of a single event in three editions of the Pankratova volume—the allied landing in Normandy on June 6, 1944. The editions are dated 1945, 1946 and 1955.
The 1945 edition was sent to press toward the end of, 1944. The account of the landing runs as follows:
On June 6, 1944, the allied troops achieved a successful landing in the north of France in accordance with the resolutions adopted at the Teheran Confer-
ence regarding co-ordinated actions of the allied powers from the east and the west. In appraising the landing of the allies in the north of France, Comrade Stalin stated: “One can say, without
equivocation, that the wide forcing of the Channel and the mass landing of allied troops in the north of France were a brilliant success of our allies . . . The brilliantly achieved invasion by British and American troops of northern France led to further military vic-
tories of the allies, who by the 15th of September 1944 cleared almost all of France and Belgium of German forces and crossed the German frontier, taking possession of the first German city — the birthplace of Marx — Trier.
The edition for 1946, prepared after the war was over and after a great shift in the Party line, presented a very different picture:
The victories of the Red Army
played a decisive role in ensuring the military successes of the allies in North Africa and Italy. The drawing of the basic German reserves from the west and the destruction of the best German divisions on the Soviet-German front provided the opportunity for the successful development of large offensive operations by the allies in Europe . . . Thus, the fourth year of the war proved to be a year of decisive victories of the Soviet armies.
By 1955 the tribute to England and the United States passed the zero point. “Our allies” have disappeared and presumably changed sides after the close of the war:
England and the United States in the course of three years of war delayed in every way the opening of a second front in Europe against the German troops. But when after the tremendous victories of the Soviet Army it became clear that the Soviet Union with its own forces would occupy the entire territory of Germany and liberate France, England and the USA decided to open a second front in Europe.
Thus history books make it clear that “the Soviet Union alone carried the basic burden of the war, and the Soviet people shed their blood not only for themselves, but also for other peoples.” And the “Soviet Army fulfilled its liberating mission in relation to all the peoples of Europe and helped them to throw off the yoke of the German enslavers.” It took only twenty-four days to bring Japan to unconditional surrender:
The entire world recognized the great service of the Soviet Army which by its selfless struggle saved civilization from the German-fascist barbarians and from the Japanese imperialists. The Soviet Army emerged before the whole world as an army of liberation . . . the savior of civilization.
And here is what the Soviet history texts now say of the “brilliant allies” of the 1945 editions:
The imperialists of the USA and their partners, feverishly preparing for a new world war, strenuously dispatched to the USSR and the countries of the people’s democracy their spies, wreckers, and diversionists, attempting to undermine peaceful, socialist construction.
Though history seldom embarrasses the conscientious Russian teacher, religion sometimes does.
Since Stalin’s death, the campaign to “improve” anti-religious instruction in the schools has assumed the proportions of a major undertaking. The "deplorable condition” in the schools which the campaign was launched to correct is described in an editorial in Uchitel’skaiu Guzeta. In reporting conditions in the schools of Yaroslavl' the editorial states that the quality of "scientific-atheistic training of pupils” is “intolerable” and “many teachers do not struggle against religious survivals and superstitions.” "Some pupils participate in religious ceremonies and are infected with all sorts of superstitions.” A fourth-grade pupil, Igor, and his thirdgrade sister, Galia, "wear crucifixes, attend church regularly, read prayers, and collect money for church needs.”
And then there was the case of a student who "left the ranks of the Young Communists and devoted herself to prayers” to improve her scholarship. The account insists that anti-religious instruction should be “systematic” and marked by a “militant and offensive spirit.” that “a most important task of all teachers is to show the absolute irreconcilability of science and religion."
Rules of conduct for Soviet schoolchildren are even more rigid than scholarship training.
In 1944 the Commissar of Education issued an “instruction" to all teachers on the “evaluation of conduct.” giving a "grade of five for flawless conduct both in the school and outside the school.” For a “noticeable violation of conduct” grade four is given but such a grade is “permitted during only one quarter.” If the pupil fails to improve, the "pedagogical soviet” may lower the grade to three. Phis is a warning of possible expulsion.
Certificates and diplomas are issued "only when the pupil’s conduct is excellent (grade of five with the following remark: ‘with excellent (5) conduct’). ’ Thus, although all pupils are not expected to make five—the highest mark—in every subject, they are expected to make such a mark in conduct.
The Russian student who survives the complete middle school is well on his way to becoming a member of the Soviet's new intelligentsia, an upper crust of brains that directs industry, economy and political machinery. Higher schools have it tuition fee ot 300 to 500 rubles a year, but outstanding students get a maintenance allowance plus an extra twenty-five percent for spending.
Russia's new intellectual, professional, technical, managerial and political elite is highly privileged in both material and spiritual rewards. The tuition charges in higher schools, while large enough to constitute a serious financial burden for most families, presented no obstacle to the advancement of the sons and daughters of the new elite. The fees therefore have played some role in driving underprivileged Soviet youth into the ranks ol the “labor reserves. In spite ot the systematic propagation of the idea of the heroism of manual labor, the Soviet secondary school for many years has been oriented toward the university and the professions, and has associated a stigma of inferiority with hard work by which the great masses of people gain their livelihood. Today a briefcase is more desired by Soviet youth than the hammer or sickle. According to criticisms in the Soviet press as late as May 1956, Russian parents, like parents almost everywhere, want their children to go to college and “wear a white collar.
No other development inside Russia has evoked more attention outside Russia than the country's industrial advancement. When the Party launched its Plan of Great Works in 1928 it outlined goals that seemed fantastic—180percent increase in industrial production, 400-percent increase in oil production. 200-percent increase in iron output, 53,000 tractors a year where none had been produced before. All this with few technicians, for Russia had only 1,500 institutions for the training of specialists—they could accommodate 250,000 students. Half the people were still illiterate, lo do the job the Plan proposed to train 350,000 specialists — engineers, technicians and scientists — at once.
From 1928 to 1954 Soviet higher schools graduated almost 3,000,000 of these specialists. In higher schools for specialists and technical schools for
workmen almost 4.000,000 students were enrolled by 1954. This, the author says, involved the greatest mass conscription of brains in history.
No university or technical institute in the Soviet Union ever springs into being on free initiative. It comes into existence only if the central plan requires it. An institution does not launch a new department because its rival across the street or in another province has done so. Service to the Soviet and its program of development are always the decisive factors.
The size of the student body or faculty likewise is not left to chance or the urge of the young "to go to college.” Such matters are determined by the number of specialists of each type and grade required. Although the individual receives personal benefit from his studies, the overriding objective is service to the state. Under a series of decrees beginning in 1933. the young specialist is assigned to a job within five days after graduation for a minimum of three years. He may be assigned to some distant region of the Soviet Union. A system of workbooks
and passports limits the freedom of choice and movement of the individual.
The meaning of this for the free world is not difficult to grasp. Within a single generation the Bolsheviks have converted a backward country into a powerful industrial state. While many factors have entered into this program Soviet power rests on the army of specialists trained in the higher schools. The Sixth Five-Year Plan calls for further expansion. It would appear that the Bolshevik revolution is entering a new and fateful phase. No longer will Soviet leaders confine themselves to political agitators. Indeed, they have already embarked on a program of technical and economic assistance to backward countries.
In his speech at the Twentieth Congress, Khrushchev boasted that the Soviet Union is “helping the people’s democracies to build 391 enterprises” and “China to build in one five-year period alone 156 enterprises." At the same time, alluring proposals are being made to many other countries. All of this means specialists and more specialists. Today Russia is producing twice as many engineers and scientists as the U. S. But it does not mean that the Soviet training institutions have produced so many specialists that the Soviet Union now finds itself embarrassed by a surplus. The system does not work in such fashion. If specialists are prepared beyond the defined needs of the domestic economy, they are prepared according to plan lo advance the cause of communism in the countries chosen for a!tcntion~»-to enhance the prestige and influence of the Soviet Union wherever they may go.
The Soviet specialist is not only a technician; he is also committed to the cause of I.enin. And you may be sure that every specialist, before crossing the borders of the Soviet Union, will he carefully trained for his komandirovka (mission) and
subjected to the most severe tests of political loyalty, outlook and understanding.
We enter now the fascinating world of speculation about the future. What will be the impact on the regime itself during the coming years of this tremendous program to educate the people? May not the Party, quite unwittingly, have released forces that in time will destroy the foundations as well as the superstructure of the totalitarian state? Are not literacy and education in their very nature liberating factors in history and society? If an individual is taught to think in accordance with the scientific method in physics or astronomy, may he not transfer the method to the social and political realms? Do not the great masses of the Soviet people already resent the dictatorship and long for political liberty? Or can human nature be molded to any pattern according to the wishes of the molder? May not the Communist philosophers be correct in their claim that the experience of the Soviet state has demonstrated the possibility of transforming the nature of man?
There exists unhappily no calculus by which such questions can be answered. ★
Dr. Counts’ full observations will he published later in the hook. The Challenge of Soviet Education, by the McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc.